When looking at the Green Party result today, there are two important things to understand. The first is that the 2009 European election took place in the month after the expenses scandal. The second is that the UK lost many of its MEP seats in 2009, meaning it was harder to get each one.
Because of this reduction in seats, in the months before the 2009 Euro-poll, it looked inevitable that we would lose both our MEPs – not because we would get fewer votes than in the 2004 election, but because the same number of votes would not equate to a seat. Ironically, it was the Daily Telegraph who saved us from this fate. As they published, day after day, revelations of how MPs had abused the expenses system, the country worked itself into a frenzy. All across Britain, people of almost any political persuasion sought ways to punish the Westminster establishment.
It’s worth remembering too that this is the genesis of the current UKIP rise. Before the expenses scandal, they looked like they were going to be wiped out – two of their MEPs had been jailed for fraud, and they were generally seen as a joke – or, more importantly, they were generally ignored. They did much better out of that particular crisis than we did. But it saved our two MEPs.
There are other reasons to believe that 2009 was particularly good for Greens. It was the year of the Copenhagen climate conference and The Wave: the climate movement was at its peak. That Euro election was one of the worst votes for Labour in its history, after the press had turned against Brown, but without the risk that not voting Labour would allow a Tory government in. The election took place right after Fred Goodwin’s car had been set on fire, when people were viscerally angry about the banking collapse, but not yet debating long term solutions. This climate of rage at the establishment helped us hugely.
From then on, there were many who expected the Greens to do badly. As the long recession eclipsed concern for the environment and, more importantly, as the desire to get the Tories out replaced anger with Labour on the left, many a pundit proclaimed that the party was about to enter the doldrums.
The Lib Dems going into coalition helped a bit. But it’s worth remembering that around a third of Lib Dems prefer them to work with Tories than Labour. It’s worth remembering that much of the Labour strategy at the moment – from electing a wonkish middle class leader on – seems to be aimed at hoovering up the rest of those Lib Dem votes. It’s worth remembering that anger at Labour brings access to a much bigger pool of voters than does anger at the Lib Dems.
It is in this context that we should judge the state of the party in last night’s European and last week’s local election results. To keep our MEPs, we had to attract voters to us rather than have them fall into our lap because of anger at the political establishment. We had to get people to vote for us rather than just against everyone else. This required an ideological appeal rather than just being ‘someone else’; and it required such an appeal in the context of an Ofcom ruling which declared there to be four big parties, of which we were not one.
Faced with this challenge, the party took a gamble. It took the kind of risk that you need to take in order to grow out of a comfortable position. In 2009, we had focussed our campaigning in the South East and London, where we already had two MEPs. We had played a defensive game, and won both seats with comfortable margins, whilst missing out narrowly across much of the rest of the country. Greens never needed a national swing to get more seats, just a more even distribution of votes.
This time, despite struggling against a headwind, the party chose the tougher path. It put its resources not into just defending its two seats, but into attempting to win six (the Scottish party also worked hard for a seventh, but is an independent organisation with its own strategic decisions).
The fact that the national total for Greens is down, but that the number of seats is up is in part a product of this gamble paying off. It’s easier to get lots of votes in the same place, but that doesn’t add extra seats. It’s worth noting that, whilst the national vote share was down, the biggest falls were in London and the South East (where we already had MEPs with comfortable margins), as campaign resources were pulled out of these regions and poured into the next targets – South West, North West and Eastern in particular – where the vote respectively increased, and held steady. The payoff for this strategy – and for holding our nerve as it looked like we might lose both of our MEPs – is a third seat.
But it’s a product of something else too, something more important, long term. Since 2009, the party’s membership has doubled. It was, arguably, Bristol which granted Britain its newest Green MEP. The Bristol Greens have grown drastically in recent years, winning council seats where they had none, and becoming serious players in the city where they weren’t before. Bristol is relatively typical. Greens are now the opposition on Liverpool city council. We came second across Manchester, and picked up good votes in numerous cities across the country.
The point is this. In 2009, Greens were lucky to keep our two MEPs. They were in part delivered to us through astonishingly friendly last minute circumstance. This time, the MEPs were retained – and a new one elected, despite circumstances being much less friendly – through genuine growth in the party, through the development of roots in communities, and through a strategic decision which risked everything in order to break out of the South East bubble.
This tells us something else too. The people who voted Green in 2009 gave us little base to build on. They came from across the ideological spectrum (apart from the far right), and all that they had in common was that they were angry with the establishment parties and they didn’t want to support UKIP. This time, the votes were fought for and won one at a time. They were progressives voting for a clear ideological programme. Opinion polls before the election showed that they are overwhelmingly young, usually from social class C1 (lower middle class), and largely live in Housing Association or privately rented housing. In other words, they are the precariat. Anecdotally, the activist left and those involved in the student movement of 2010 turned out for us like they never have before.
Five years ago, we had the wind on our back. This time, it was blowing against us. Gaining ground in that context is hugely encouraging for the party. This gain is reflected in the local election results. Whilst the increase in council seats were not huge, the increase in vote in seats the party did not target and did little work in was remarkable – scoring 15% across all of Ealing, 10% across Hillingdon, 7% across Carlisle, 8% across Portsmouth, 13% across Manchester, 14% across Barnet, 13% across Reading. These, remember, are in first past the post council elections, mostly in seats Greens will have done no work in, often in the middle of two other parties squeezing. We also picked up our first seat in Belfast across a vast ward, giving us a good crack at a second Assembly seat in Northern Ireland next time. This is not to mention 20% across normal strongholds of Hackney, Islington, Lewisham, Oxford, and coming first, according to ballot box samples, across Brighton Pavillion.
In the past, we depended on pockets of support in the midst of vast deserts of nothing. Today, where we stand a candidate, we consistently get 5-10% of the vote rather than 1-3%, and often pick up 15%. Most remarkably of all, when I scoured local council websites late into the night to work out the above results, I found a Green candidate in the vast majority of wards I looked at, all the way from the far North West to the deep South East. Five years ago, undertaking the same exercise, it was a challenge to find any candidates in many of these places.
There are many great people who narrowly missed out in this election, and for them we should shed a tear. But let us too understand that, in this election, to get where we have, we needed to build a house out of rock. The winds of national politics huff and puff, and who knows what will happen next year, but the long term growth of the Green roots is remarkable. We are becoming the go-to party for people to the left of Labour. That brings with it not just an occasional vote, but a big activist base if it can be mobilised. And that is very encouraging indeed.